Conferences



Fancy catching up with some of the sights around the Czech Republic, how does Toxic Mountain sound as a field trip? Hmmm, perhaps not so alluring. Toxic Mountain is the translation of Jedovar Har, to the south of Prague, where for 130 years iron and mercury have been mined and smelted. Maria Hojdova from here in Prague, has been analysing mercury levels from the forest floors around Jedovar Har, and another site, Pribram, where lead zinc and silver were mined and lead smelted, leaving mercury behind from the ores.

Hojdova found that most of the inorganic mercury was present as the immobile and water insoluble mercury sulfide, with less than 14% of the mercury in more mobile forms – this was also backed up by showing that most contamination was on the surface of soil, rather than permeating further down. By also analysing the mercury in tree rings Hojdova also showed how the mercury deposition matched the activity of the mining areas, including a secondary peak in the 60s.

However, if that doesn’t put you off, Hojdova did conclude her talk with a recommendation for Pribram and its mining museum. Unfortunately, I don’t think my schedules going to allow such a field trip.

Meanwhile, over in the poster sessions I was treated to a fantastic story of art theft and recovery by a student from Karel Lemr‘s lab, Volodymyr Pauk. The lab were approached when n painting, Crucifixion, stolen from the St Sebestian church on Holy Hill in the Czech Republic, was recovered in Austria. Restorers and conservators obviously wanted to know what they had, both to determine authenticity and to help restoration efforts. Pauk was charged with determining which blue pigment was used – Prussian blue or indigo.

Prussian blue is an inorganic pigment (Fe4[Fe(CN)6]3) and was discovered back in the 18th century in Berlin (hence the name), whereas indigo, an organic dye extracted from plants, has been used since ancient times, until being superceeded by synthetic alternatives. Identifying which has been used can help date painting, but both are insoluble in water or many common organic solvents.

Pauk was tasked with making the pigments soluble so that they could be identified with mass spectrometry rather than traditional methods like HPLC. This was especially important, said Pauk, because when he was finally sent samples ofthe paint, they were so small that to begn with he thought he had been sent empty sample bags.

For Prussian blue, Pauk showed that the pigment could be decomposed with sodium hydroxide to give  Na4[Fe(CN)6. Meanwhile, indigo could be reduced with dithionite to give the soluble leucoindigo. That allowed Pauk and his lab to test the tiny samples of paint and identify the paint used. Although the technique was so sensitive that it detected some contamination of Prussian blue, the painting was shown to mainly contain indigo, helping to date the artwork as well as telling conservators what to use.

Restoration of the artwork is still ongoing. Meanwhile Pauk is now trying to do similar work to convert Tyrian, or Royal, purple into a mass spec-able compound. If anyone has any ideas I suggest you get in contact.

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This way for all your chemistry needs

This week, the historic city of Prague is playing host to nearly 1800 chemists for the 4th EuCheMS Chemistry Congress. As you might expect, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the past over the last day and a half, but not the history that preoccupies the tourists who are sharing my hotel.

Yesterday at the opening ceremony, several of the speakers were keen to talk about their links with Prague – how they had visited before and were pleased to come back, or to highlight a longer standing connection with the city. President of Iupac Kazuyuki Tatsumi, used the opportunity to share some snaps from his previous visit back in 1982, with a familiar physical chemist stood in the picture with Tatsumi and  common mentor Rudolf Zahradnik – a young Angela Merkel. Meanwhile, Jean-Marie Lehn claims links to Prague back to 1963, and a paper co-authored with a Czech chemist. Lehn has now set up a prize, in collaboration with the French Embassy in Prague, a prize to help support Czech chemistry and young Czech researchers. This year, the winner was Michal Kolar from Charles University here in Prague for his work on halogen bonds. As part of his prize, Konar will be sponsored for a month’s study visit to France.

However, after the opening ceremony and beer on Sunday, Monday started bright and early with a full scientific programme with 12 parallel sessions. The topics that caught my attention all had a common theme – history.

One talk that stood out was in the Environmental and Radiochemistry section. This morning, Tarja Ikaheimonen of Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority compared the Fukushima accident to Chernobyl, and as someone who doesn’t remember the 1986 event, some of the facts and stats she reported were incredibly sobering. Forests are apparently very susceptible to nuclear contamination because the plants take up caesium instead of potassium and the Fukushima fallout was mainly over Japanese forests. In Finland the post-Chernobyl contamination is still 40% of the maximum, says Ikaheimonen, showing how long lasting that contamination can be. And of course, that then concentrates up the food chain. Butterflies in the forests near Fukushima are now showing morphological variability, just as in Finland’s forests

However, the Fukushima disaster, while obviously awful, was no where near as bad as Chernobyl, says Ikaheimonen. Caesium discharge in Japan was about 20-30% that of Chernobyl, and the fall out was mainly local, rather than contaminating vast portions of northern Europe, as Chernobyl has. And perhaps, just as the Chernobyl site is now an incredibly diverse nature reserve, the same could happen for the forests in Japan says Ikaheimonen. I have to say though, I don’t think I’d recommend that as a general strategy for improving environmental diversity.

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A chocolate chemistry session, how could I refuse? Not only that, but when I got there I realised that there were also free samples. (more…)

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Paleontology, archaeology and chemistry – if I say those words you’re probably thinking isotopic rations, and chemical analysis. But what about peeling back the layers of biological history?

Loren Williams of Georgia Tech has been doing just that with the ribosome, specifically, the large subunit (LSU) ‘where all the chemistry happens.’ X-ray chromatography of the ribozome, that thing some people won the nobel prize in chemistry a few years ago, shows that the core of the LSU is conserved across the tree of life, implying not just a common ancestor but, says Williams, that the core is what the LSU began it’s life as. Peeling back the layers to the core as molecular time travel.

So Williams is working on making a testable model of what the core was, and to establish what the LSU did before it grew up and joined with the small sub unit and started making protein chains. However, it was a throw-away comment in Williams’ talk that really got me thinking. He said that as we look out of the window, or watch a nature documentary, that impression of such wide diversity is an illusion. If you break the ribozyme, meddle with the core of the LSU, life cannot continue. Once that core functionality was achieved, it stayed and at the core of all life, the structure and sequence is almost identical.

Now maybe it’s the long days, but I find that such an interesting concept and relevant to this entire meeting. The convention centre and the hotels are filled with disparate groups of chemists. Different sections that can spend their entire time in a couple of rooms, their niches. Looking at the programme, the science covered seems so diverse but ultimately, at the core the science is the same.

Laura Howes

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The ACS Award for Creative Innovation Symposium in honour of Chad Mirkin was a who’s who of clever nano chemistry with bio applications.

John Rogers presented his flexible circuits and you can read my story here. But the flexible circuits are also being used in a way I didn’t mention in the story – for imaging the brain during epileptic fits. With patients with extreme epilepsy, surgery is sometimes used. Surgeons open up the skull, cover the brain in electrodes and then provoke a seizure to see where to cut. Rogers’ group has developed their circuits for this as well, and he showed an amazing video of the repeating waves that pulse through the brain during a fit. So what looks like very applications based science has now given new insights into epilepsy:

I luckily got to chat to David Walt after the session about creative innovation and how spin outs can amplify the impact of science. Obviously, being the founder of Illumina, Walt has an interesting perspective. ‘A lot of scientists don’t realise that the real impact is when you grow a technology to when it’s commercially successful,’ he says. He urged people not to focus on the ‘quick buck’ but focus on creating a lasting, long-term company. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but Walt does believe that the entrepreneurial side of science then pushes you to do better fundamental research. At the symposium today, that was a heady and enticing prospect.

Laura Howes

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Well I’m here in San Diego for the Spring ACS meeting (even if my suitcase isn’t) and the packed schedule has already brought up some gems. Here’s my round up of day 1… (more…)

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The AAAS meeting rounded off with a look at how on Earth we’re going to feed increasing numbers of people who are developing a greater taste for pork, chicken and beef. Currently, livestock takes up 30% of the world’s farmland – both in grazing land and crops for feed – and with global consumption of meat expected to almost double by 2050 a solution is urgently needed. (more…)

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Day two at the AAAS meeting brought more interesting debate and discussion. Bright and early first thing in the morning Greg Scholes, from the University of Toronto, Canada, filling in for Graham Fleming, from the University California, Berkeley, who was ill, said that we have to learn lessons from nature on solar light harvesting. (more…)

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The American Association for the Advancement of Science conference has kicked off in Vancouver, Canada, under the theme of flattening the world – not Hulk like destruction, more about sharing knowledge evenly across the globe. There’s going to be plenty of talk on how electronic communications can help spread information around the world that can help people address the myriad challenges they face in feeding themselves, providing clean water and sustainable development. But for now Thursday was a low key start, building to a very busy next three days. (more…)

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The International Year of Chemistry (IYC) was brought to a close yesterday in Brussels, Belgium, with a bang as Iupac president Nicole Moreau made the most of the media spotlight to announce that the names for elements 114 and 116 had been give provisional approval.

The event, which attracted more than 800 people from 70 countries, was a time for reflecting on what had been achieved over the year and how much more there was still to do in raising awareness of the contributions that chemistry plays in everyone’s lives. Many of the speakers made much of the fact that tough times are ahead, as we face unprecedented global challenges in energy, food, water and many other areas. But there was real optimism that the next generation of young chemists is up to the job.

(more…)

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